Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 10 April 2016
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Isaiah 38: 9-20; John 11: 17-44
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
When we die, as one day we all must, and our funeral service is conducted according to the rites of the Church of England, those words will be said or sung at our funeral service.
This has been a week of archiepiscopal statements. The one I wish to refer to now is not the Archbishop of Canterbury’s bombshell about his natural father, but Archbishop Barry Morgan’s presidential address to the Governing Body of the Church in Wales last week.
He spoke, as you might expect, about a national issue, the future of the steel industry and the communities which depend on it; and on the Pastoral Letter which the Welsh Bishops have addressed to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people (an issue vexing the Church of England and the Anglican Communion); but he also spoke about something which is at one very personal to him, but also applied to us: the death of his wife Hilary and attitudes to death and dying in our society and in the Church.
The Archbishop paid tribute to his wife’s courage and honesty in facing the reality of her illness: an aggressive and terminal cancer.
“Theology,” the Archbishop said, “is about making sense of one’s belief in God in the light of one’s experience of life.” We move from the history, what happens, to reflection (theology) to incorporation (spirituality).
So there is an aptness about our being given the raising of Lazarus as our reading tonight. In it, John uses the story to address questions raised by the community for which he wrote.
Archbishop Barry spoke of the euphemisms we employ to avoid speaking about death and dying: “passed away, gone to sleep, passed on, started a journey, lost;” as if somehow these are not quite as final or brutal as the word “death.”
We now live in a society where dying and death have been institutionalized: they rarely happen at home. So many people go through half their life or more without ever seeing a dead body.
“But unless we, as Christians, are willing to face the reality and the finality in one sense of death, who is going to?”
This spirit of avoidance and denial has invaded our funeral practices. Newspaper announcements speak not of funerals but of memorial services or thanksgivings or the celebration of the life of someone. These often take place without the body. This too obvious sign of our mortality might upset people. But the reality of death is not to be denied: “Lazarus is dead.” Jesus says it plainly. Death is real. Let’s not pretend.
Sermons on the hope of resurrection have given way to eulogies. Many of these, following the rubric of not speaking ill of the dead, convey the impression that the deceased was conceived without sin and avoided its entanglements for the rest of their life.
I am not saying that thanksgiving for the departed should play no part in a funeral service: that would be to deny the signs of the grace which had been at work in a person’s life; the love we have received from them, the good examples they have been to us. But we all come to death, be it our own or that of someone close to us, as sinners in need of forgiveness. We sing psalms and hymns and the Nunc Dimittis, not, “I did it my way,” because we know that doing it our way, following the devices and desires of our own hearts,” is often where we go wrong. We pray for the souls of our loved ones as real people, warts and all, even as we hope that one day others will pray for us.
Those with Mary in the house think she is going to the tomb to weep. She comes to Jesus and falls at his feet weeping, her companions joining her in tears. Jesus, seeing their tears, is deeply moved and inwardly troubled, just as he will be when he confronts the reality of his own death (12: 27) Then we are told quite simply, “Jesus wept.”
Mary’s reproach of Jesus for his delay in coming to her sick brother, is an act of faith that he could have done something. Overcome with sorrow at the death of a loved one, we too often ask why God could not have prevented that death. In asking such questions, we make an implicit act of faith by clinging in bewildered grief to the source of all consolation, who is the one who permitted the death.
Some suggest that Jesus’ weeping was an expression of anger at Mary’s and the Jews’ lack of faith, but the reaction of the bystanders assures us that this is not so: “See how he loved him.” (11: 36). Jesus’ tears are a sharing in Mary’s grief and perhaps in her anger at death, the enemy of all life. Jesus, in his most fully human moment in John, shares human agony in the face of death, an agony he will feel for himself as he shrinks from the passion.
This episode roots the spiritual life of the community in the realism of human experience. Christian faith is neither a denial of the reality of suffering and death nor merely a dogged stoicism in the face of them. Death is real and so is the suffering it causes. Faith is not compatible with despair, but it is no stranger to tears. We are not asked not to weep but only not to despair, for the one in whom we believe is our resurrection because he is our life.
So a Christian funeral and ministry to the dying and the bereaved need to make space for grieving: for tears rather than stiff-upper-lip.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus’ delay in coming to Lazarus, like his physical absence before his coming in glory, is real. The suffering it causes is real. Jesus does not rebuke the sisters for their suffering, either at their brother’s death, or at his own absence. There is no, “Come on girls, pull yourselves together!” What he asks is that they, and all the disciples, realize and believe in his intimate real presence even in his physical absence. This presence can sustain believers through all the sufferings of this life, even death itself. The death of Lazarus and the physical absence of Jesus, are both real and yet not the ultimate reality of Christian experience. In the story of Lazarus, we have the symbol of the mutual indwelling of Jesus and his disciples, which gives them, even now, and within the experience of death and absence, eternal life. When Jesus finally goes to Bethany, it is not to become present to those he loves, for he has never really been absent. It is to reveal his glory and bring them, with other disciples, to belief.
The Eucharist which is the sacrament of the presence of the risen Christ answers one of the questions raised by the story of Lazarus, “Lord, if you had been here…” John tells this story for his church which had to learn to live with the apparent absence of Christ because it knows Christ’s indwelling presence.
If Mary represents our grieving, in her dialogue with Jesus, Martha represents us in our faith, even if our belief and understanding is not fully formed. She has asked the same question as Mary: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
“Your brother will rise again.”
“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Martha’s response is the fullest confession of faith in John’s gospel. She recognizes that Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, and the one sent into the world by the Father, what Jesus prays that those who witness the raising of Lazarus will believe (11: 42.) This is the faith that, according to its conclusion the 4th Gospel is written to evoke (20: 31). Like Thomas’s confession of faith after the resurrection, it is significant that this is addressed directly to Jesus in response to his self-revelation: “Do you believe this? Yes, Lord.” (11:26-27). Faith at this point is not intellectual assent but personal spiritual commitment and transformation: “Do you believe this?”
A funeral service expresses our belief, perhaps when we cannot ourselves put it into words. The corporate belief of the Church sustains us. That belief is not just in survival after death as a natural process: eternal life is not the same as interminable life! It is a belief in a living relationship with Jesus now and in the future. So we pray that we might live as those who believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead. To believe in the Communion of Saints is to believe that in him who is the resurrection and the life we are at one with all believers, even when we are separated by death. The church transcends time. That is why we continue to hold those “whom we love but see no longer” in our prayers.
Jesus looked upwards and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you have sent me.”
So in a Christian funeral service, there should be thanksgiving not only for the life of the person who has died but for what God has done in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, his victory over sin and death, his promise of eternal life and his risen presence now. That is why the Eucharist is the most fitting context for a funeral: it sets our death and our hope of resurrection firmly in the context of Christ’s.
Another Welsh Archbishop once said at a study day for the clergy of the Diocese of London, that we see the church at its best at a good funeral. That, in my experience, has been why the funerals of believing Christians are so often joyful and hopeful rather than tragic and despairing occasions.